Robotics (Drones) Do Dull, Dirty, Dangerous & Now Difficult
The landscape is evolving, but the story has stayed the same — only we’ve added a new chapter in robotics and automation. For years, it’s been understood that robotics, a category that includes drones, will do the “dull, dirty and dangerous” jobs of industry. Only, as enablers emerge and sophistication increases, not only is this trend expanding, robots are now capable of doing the “difficult” too.
Autonomous robotics will undoubtably bring with it short-term displacement of some professional occupations. However, this disruption will shortly be followed by new professions and long-term economic gains.
The first and most obvious category that robots are best qualified for are “dull,” low interaction, high repetition jobs. These responsibilities require very little human thought, and typically involve processes that have a sole objective of bulk efficiently or output. Robots have the unique ability to work around the clock and streamline “dull” processes, saving businesses money and freeing human capital to pursue more variable, cognitive tasks.
Example: Fulfillment Centers
Over the past few years, the rapid growth in e-commerce has placed a heavy burden on fulfillment centers. Centers must support both high volume movement of small, multi-line orders, as well as market pressures for faster delivery. Without robots, workers must walk between long aisles to find an item on a shelf, grab and scan it, place the item in a cart and push the item to the next staging area. With robots, the process is flipped, and shelves move around the facility and deliver items directly to workers. This process increases order-to-delivery times, reduces errors, and minimizes the burden on workers.
Another category of job tasks that robots are exceptionally positioned for are the “dirty,” often unsanitary or hazardous jobs that can otherwise have an adverse effect on human health. Most often these are the roles in society that are unfavorable, but ‘somebody has to do it.’ These include waste management, livestock nurturing and mine exploration. Robots remove humans from risk and harm in these situations.
Example: Sewer Scrapers
Beneath cities and neighborhoods run millions of miles of pipes that carry water, waste and many other materials. These underground pipes are prone to issues like corrosion, leaks, clogs, and collapses. When there is an issue, it can be hard to pinpoint and difficult to access. Traditional methods are reactive, remedying an issue when the leak makes its way to ground-level or the blockage causes an issue elsewhere. To fix a pipe, crew must shut off the pipe, deliver heavy-duty machinery onsite, dig through existing infrastructure to access the pipe, make the repair and then fix the infrastructure damaged accessing the pipe. In contrast, robots continuously clean, map and inspect pipes, identify problems and predict issues, and unblock or repair problems with minimal intervention. Additionally, robots are equipped with sensors that measure variables like distance, pressure, temperature and composition; providing new data on pipe health and giving municipalities visibility of pollutants, infectious diseases, and drug use in the area.
Jobs that put humans in “dangerous” or harmful situations are the final category in the original ‘3Ds’ that robots are well suited to perform. In addition to preventing the loss of human lives, robots have the capacity to measure and detect variables beyond the human perception. Robots can defuse bombs, traverse distant planets, manage nuclear plants, and inspect unstable structures.
Example: Bridge Inspection
There are over 600,000 bridges in the U.S., 56,000 of which are rated “structurally deficient.” In order to maintain safety and function, bridges must be inspected regularly. Traditionally, the method of inspection is dependent on the type, location and traffic rate of the bridge. Methods include an aerial work platform, a specialized under-bridge inspection vehicle, ladders or ropes. Regardless of the method, there is a high degree of expertise, risk and cost associated with manned bridge inspections. In comparison, multirotor drones completely remove humans from dangerous situations, instantly inspecting hard-to-access areas with newfound speed and maneuverability. Drones also have the added advantage of collecting high fidelity visual data at a frequency manual inspections can’t rival, providing 4D Data that can detect changes and train computers to identify and predict issues. Additionally, Drones can carry an array of sensors that give inspectors views of bridge health that are beyond the perception of the human eye, including thermal, infrared, and x-ray imaging.
The Difficult — A New Chapter
As robotics develop intelligence, dexterity and autonomicity, they are ushering in a new chapter in jobs where robots are better suited — “difficult,” calculated tasks that require a low margin of error and a high level of detail. Some of the more routine procedures performed by microchip manufacturers, medical surgeons and lab technicians are already partially or completely replaced by precision robotics.
Example: Medical Surgery
In medical surgery, maximizing outcomes and safety is principal, no matter the procedural method. For surgeries that involve a fixed target, robot or robot-assisted techniques offer greater precision, flexibility and control than conventional methods.
Take for example robotic coronary artery bypass surgery. In conventional open-heart surgery, the heart can only be reached by a large chest incision and dividing the breast bone. In contrast, the robotic-assisted procedure involves only a small incision between the ribs. Patients have less blood loss, reduced pain, faster recovery, and fewer complications. Additionally, robots provide better visibility and increase flexibility.
What Will Humans Do?
The big question. It’s hard to deny the value robots offer by taking ownership of dull, dirty, dangerous and difficult tasks. Though it does trigger a familiar reaction, “what will humans do if robots take these time-honored jobs?” The good news is, this isn’t a new question.
Technologic advances have brought constant change to industry. For every mass extinction of obsolete jobs, there is new life given to industry in the form of new and unexpected jobs. Take for example the Internet. The introduction of all things digital displaced many longstanding positions in the marketplace. At that time, it would have been impossible to predict that this transformation in technology would have given rise to millions of jobs in social media, website and SEO management. Before the internet, it was machines and automation that brought sweeping changes to traditional weavers and textile workers, and before that, it was the electricity, railroads, concrete, the wheel and fire. With each evolution, humans took a giant leap forward.
Autonomous robotics are simply the next technology to displace our perception of industry and professions. The reality is, for the next few decades, robots will work side by side with humans, each doing what each is best at. Robots will do the dirty, dull, dangerous and difficult. Humans instinctively aren’t well suited for these jobs. Rather, humans will do the variable, dexterous and cognitive. Robots can’t think beyond algorithms to creatively solve problems, demonstrate empathy and emotion, or invent. In separate, robots and humans cannot reach beyond their inherent limitations. But together, in concert, robots and humans will herald a renaissance for mankind.